Today’s jobs report showing the unemployment rate dropping yet again, to 3.8 percent, is great news for American workers. As I noted last week on the home page, a tight labor market, where employers have to hustle to recruit and retain workers, is the best social policy, raising the wages of our lowest-paid compatriots and drawing people back into the labor market (who aren’t currently even counted in the unemployment statistics).
Unfortunately, today is also when the Federal Register published the formal rule, announced last week, that up to 15,000 extra H-2B visas would be issued to employers wanting to import seasonal, unskilled, non-agricultural workers, mostly in landscaping and hospitality (waiters, maids, etc.). This is the result of Congress chickening out of simply increasing the cap on H-2B visas (currently 66,000 a year) and instead passing the buck to the Department of Homeland Security in the recent omnibus funding measure.
This same dodge happened last year, when John Kelly was still DHS secretary. He came under extreme pressure (from Senator Thom Tillis and from the White House, whose occupant is an enthusiastic booster of guestworker visas) and agreed to a “one-time increase.” Now that it’s happened again, I guess “one-time” has a different meaning inside the Beltway.
This kind of sleazy servicing of industry lobbyists is nothing new in D.C. The bigger problem than this year’s extra visas is that the lobbyists’ success shapes the expectations of employers. They are essentially being strung along, led to believe that they can solve their staffing problems by manipulating the levers of government to import more foreign workers, instead of taking steps to cultivate American workers whom they currently are not looking at. Higher wages, better benefits, casting the recruitment net wider — many businesses are already taking these steps, of course. But many are not, and instead are expending sweat and treasure trying to manipulate Congress. The real harm of the H-2B increase is that it gives hope that this can still work. Only when all employers come to realize that they can’t lobby their way out of a tight labor market will we see the full gains that can accrue to American workers.